In many ways, Black Knight Sword, the latest from Suda51 and his studio Grasshopper Manufacture (in conjunction with Digital Reality), is the most traditional title to bear the designer’s name. Not that you’d tell just from looking at it: On the surface, the game features the typical blend of dark visuals and exaggerated violence that you might associate with a Suda production, and all of the promotional footage released thus far has played up its weirdness. It's definitely a strange game, but beneath this unusual window dressing, Black Knight Sword is a fairly straightforward adventure-platformer in the vein of the NES Castlevanias. This gives the title a solid foundation for its eccentricities, making it a worthwhile experience even in spite of a few niggling issues.
If you’ve seen any of the aforementioned footage, then you’ll know the most striking thing about Black Knight Sword is its unique visual style. The whole game unfolds like a macabre puppet show; environments look like they're crafted from paper, and you can even see the silhouette of the audience cast against the stage curtains in between levels. The dramatic narrator frequently interjects during the gameplay (particularly when you’re low on health), lending the game an eerie and sinister quality. It’s not quite on the level of Bastion’s dynamic narration, but it nevertheless feels as though your actions have some impact on the tale the game weaves.
While these aesthetic quirks are easily the game’s most distinctive feature, they belie how traditional the gameplay is. You take on the role of the eponymous Black Knight, guiding him through lengthy side-scrolling stages and skewering any enemies standing in your path. At your command is Black Hellebore, the spirit of the Black Knight’s magical sword and the source of his powers. You’ll use her to defeat foes and activate special blocks, which are needed to cross chasms and scale vertical platforms. It’s an interesting gameplay hook, but hardly one that’s necessary to the adventure; most enemies can be dispatched much more quickly by stabbing them with your sword, and the levels that you explore don’t feature any puzzles beyond the aforementioned blocks.
Still, the stages are a lot of fun to play, thanks to their satisfying design. Platforming can get quite tricky, and new enemies are introduced frequently, keeping you constantly on your toes. The backgrounds also morph throughout the adventure, and it's fun seeing how dramatically each one transforms as you make your way to the boss.
As intriguing as the game is, it’s held back by its unusual save system. You’re free to save your progress at any point in the adventure, but should you fall during a stage (and you will, as some blindside you with insta-death traps), then you’ll be dropped back at the last checkpoint you crossed before saving. It’s a curious design decision, especially because the game could have automatically saved your progress each time you reached a checkpoint. As it stands, you’ll have to remember to record your own progress, which can be frustrating when you clear a difficult boss fight and forget to save when you reach the next checkpoint.
The other issue plaguing Black Knight Sword is its length. Your journey spans a mere five levels, which is a bit on the short side for a platformer of this kind. To their credit, these stages are rather expansive, but dedicated players will clear the whole adventure in a single sitting. There’s also very little incentive to revisit the game once you see it to the end, and its eccentric novelty eventually wears off. Completionists will eke a bit more enjoyment out of the title by playing it on a higher difficulty and finding all of the cat-head plants hidden throughout each level, but everyone else will find no reason to come back to it once they’ve defeated the last boss and seen all that it has to offer.
Still, if you’re intrigued even in the slightest, then you shouldn’t let these criticisms deter you; Black Knight Sword is an enjoyable side-scrolling adventure that’s elevated by its stylistic visuals and unsettling atmosphere. Fans of classic platformers like Castlevania or Ghosts n’ Goblins will definitely enjoy the old-school gameplay, while everyone else will revel in the papercraft setting and dark humor that frames it. The game is a bit short, and you probably won’t come back to it once you’ve cleared its final stage, but it’s still a trip worth taking. Just remember to save often.